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Save Your Darlings

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

~ William Faulkner

There’s lots of writing advice out there. I never worry about giving anyone advice that is incorrect because experience tells me people will only take the advice that appeals to them anyway. That said, save you darlings. Resuscitate them. William Faulkner’s darlings are not your darlings. Maybe that suited him, but that doesn’t mean it suits you and your book.

For instance, I once read Famous Agent’s argument that killing your darlings equates to getting rid of the stuff that is “too clever.” Oh, Jesus, no! We wouldn’t want anything in there that’s too clever! Make it all bland and uniform. Or waitaminute! Why don’t we want it clever again? In fact, wouldn’t it be great if you published a book that only contained your darlings? Wouldn’t it be great to have a book that was so clever that it was the common ideas that stood out for deletion and not the clever ones? I’m not arguing for self-conscious writing that sounds “writerly.” I am arguing for writing that takes a chance, challenges a reader once in a while and becomes distinctive art.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is packed with clever ideas, for instance. The interesting thing is, Fight Club was a reaction to the rejection. Palahniuk submitted something else first and got negative comments. His solution? Go even further and stay true to his voice. What I’m saying is, killing your darlings sounds like clever advice until you think about it a moment longer. Killing your darlings could lead to a lot of bland writing. I like intellectual engagement in my reading. I prefer surprises. Give me a ranty sprinkles of philosophy. Ladle in the new and different. I’ll love you for it. You can take a foray into something that doesn’t move the plot forward. If you make it entertaining, it will work. (Stephen King has also urged young authors to kill their darlings, but I don’t believe him. His fiction often goes off into side tracks and detailed forays that don’t necessarily advance the plot.)

Worse? I accuse William Faulkner of fraud. He didn’t kill his darlings. Faulkner is one of the greats precisely because he didn’t kill his darlings. Had he taken his own advice, As I Lay Dying wouldn’t have this:

“My mother is a fish.” 

Mr. Faulkner? J’accuse!

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